Essays

Asian Canadian Art Matters

Alice Ming Wai Jim explores why Asian Canadian art matters now.

 

Over the past few years, there has been a renewed interest in the histories, experiences and cultural production of migrants and settlers in Canada who can trace ancestry to Asia as evidenced in a number of exhibitions, conferences and publications. This resurgence often occurs in connection with re-considerations of multiculturalism, identity politics and cultural diversity, topics which arguably have been overshadowed by the art world’s preoccupation with the intensified global circulation of artists since the 1990s. The question is: Why might Asian Canadian art matter now?1

Recent scholarship in Asian Canadian Studies, despite divergent perspectives, methodologies and commitments, takes ‘Asian Canadian’ as a political project, that is, as critical work that deals with aspects of Asian Canadian history or socio-cultural formation with an awareness of the social movements, cultural activism and intellectual histories since the early 1970s which have enabled the category as a site of knowledge production.2 In the visual arts (disciplinary synergies are assumed), these interventions, which also began in the ‘70s and ‘80s, culminated in the proliferation of groundbreaking and influential exhibitions and conferences in the early 1990s at the peak of Canadian cultural race politics.3

Hard-line critiques of official multiculturalism, changes in Canadian arts funding agencies and the late 1990s entering into an era of ‘post-ethnicity’ appeared to have led to a softened period of anti-racist activism in the arts. However, the rapid re-inscription of race in post-9/11 discourse, a host of significant anniversaries marking Canadian and Asian immigration history, and implications of the new global and local conditions of the ethnic turn in contemporary art effectively revitalized critical work in North America. 

A quick glance across Canada would indicate most of this activity taking place particularly in Vancouver, the country’s Asia Pacific gateway city, Toronto, Canada’s most multicultural city, and to a much lesser extent, Montreal. As Canada’s three largest cities with the highest concentrations of Asian diasporic communities, each has its own legacy of artists, critics and cultural activists that have given rise to its current institutional configuration of non-European, ethnic or minority arts and a new generation in art schools and universities nurtured by these past and ongoing efforts and charting its current course.

One telling context to observe the cultural and political shifts that have occurred in Asian Canadian art since the new millennium is in the series of negotiations around the establishment of the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Centre A), which coincided with the beginning years of the contemporary Chinese art boom.4 Centre A’s first international symposium Twisting the Box: The New Asian Museum in 2000 propelled a number of intense local debates over, among other issues, power, the meaning of ‘community,’ and the place of ‘Asian Canadian’ within the organization’s internationalist outlook, resulting in a group of activist-artists forming their own panel pointedly titled Boxing the Local. Also deconstructively under fire was how ‘Asia’ itself was invoked.5

When I arrived at Centre A in 2003, the challenge of Locating Asia (the theme of the second symposium in 2002) especially within Canada still remained.6 To round out the series, Centre A’s third symposium in summer 2004 Mutations<>Connections: Cultural (Ex)Changes in Asian Diasporas drew a page from comparative art histories, cross-culturally examining the situation of contemporary art in and by Asian diasporas from different contexts but connected by shared experiences and issues over representation.7 Critical voices were supplement by participants in the international thematic IntraNations residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts running concurrently. As part of the IntraNations Project: Struggles, Negotiations, Conflicts in the Arts directed by writer and cultural organizer Ashok Mathur, the residency brought on board as faculty advisors multimedia artist First Nations elder Shirley Bear and Paul Wong, a forerunner in media arts in Canada and Asian Canadian cultural activism as well as still the only Asian Canadian artist to have had a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, in 1995. 

Cannily encapsulating the ethos of these years is Samina Mansuri’s 2004 video Darr (Urdu for ‘fear’), which documents 37 conversations with the intergenerational group of artists and activists from culturally-diverse and indigenous communities participating in IntraNations, responding to the question: What are you afraid of? The excerpts, relating the discourse of fear to nationalism, globalization, and cultural identity, spoke at the same time to a mindful reconciliation of the perceived disconnect, often all too easily attributed to generational differences, between the invested concerns of anti-racist activists in 1990s – the recovery of suppressed voices, the exposure of systemic exclusions, the redress of historical race-based inequalities – and those of the present generation invariably inflected by pressurized discourses and practices of the day dealing with arguably the same problems that persist in different and more deeply entrenched and complex forms.

Subsequent interdisciplinary projects, such as the conference and publication Refracting Pacific Canada (University of British Columbia) and the Anniversaries of Change consortium, both initiated in 2007 by historian Henry Yu, clearly demonstrated the ongoing significance of these issues for the Asian Canadian field by steering scrupulous attention to historical dates significant to multicultural Canada equally seized upon by nation branders and the media.8 ‘Redress Express: Chinese Restaurants and the Head Tax Issue in Canadian Art’, for example, critically focused on the first anniversary of the Canadian government’s apology to Chinese Canadians for the head tax levied on incoming immigrants from China from 1885 to 1923 and their subsequent exclusion until 1947. The 2007 exhibition at Centre A by artists from Vancouver, Victoria and Montreal exploring the Chinese restaurant as an iconic institution served as the entry point to address the contemporary politics of representation, redress and recognition in Canada as well as Current Directions in Asian Canadian Art and Culture (the symposium theme).

The title of another recent conference in 2009, Can-Asian, eh? Diaspora, Indigeneity and the Trans-Pacific, helps to indicate some of these signalled directions.9 Most affirm a broadened definition of ‘Asian Canadian’ by necessity, if it is to sustain its usefulness as an open-ended critical frame and instigate alternative modes of inquiry, to include, among other areas, not only a sharper focus on overlapping concerns of diasporic and indigenous studies but also continued research and creation of transnational practices in tandem with a greater recognition and mediation of differences in regionalist or intranational discourses. Concomitant to this is the necessity of alliances, coalitions and networks as well as productive debates and transformative pedagogies. Regular instances of problematic frames of reference in the public eye clearly indicate that much work remains to be done to ensure Asian Canadian and comparable critical work across Canada’s ten provinces and three territories when and where it matters.

Held in the nation’s capital city of Ottawa, Ontario, both ‘DIASPORArt: Strategy and Seduction of Canadian Artists from Different Cultural Communities in the Collection of the Canada Council Art Bank’ and ‘Made in Canada’ featured different selections from the Canada Council Art Bank’s targeted acquisition in 2009 of 55 works by artists from diverse cultural backgrounds and of mixed racial heritage in an effort to increase the awareness of art by this growing demographic in Canada and by extension its perceived value.10  ‘DIASPORArt’, an unprecedented group exhibition in terms of the represented artists by the Governor General of Canada, continues until September 2010 at Rideau Hall, the official residence of Her Excellence. Each of the 18 works by artists of the African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American diaspora is said to reflect the cultural diversity that characterizes the Canadian people.11

Contentious remarks about the National Gallery of Canada’s colour-blindness to anything but excellence made by its director during a segment on a national news program profiling ‘DIASPORArt’ sparked a crucial response in the form of a blog with over 200 signees from various arts-related professions calling for more awareness of the trouble with excellence, or meritocracy, as a culturally-specific criteria, among other things.12 A month after the published blog, ‘Made in Canada’ took place in April 2010 with considerably less fanfare at the Ottawa Art School’s Shenken Arts Centre in the east end of the city and featured 11 works from the Art Bank collection by artists of Asian descent. In contrasting irony, this second exhibition sought to challenge Eurocentric views of art by non-European, minority or ethnic artists as second-rate by underscoring the artistic contributions of home-grown talent so institutionally recognized.

These two recent exhibitions and their circumstances exemplify plainly how Canada continues to struggle with its self-definition as a culturally-diverse nation, a pivotal issue for the conference Complicated Entanglements: Rethinking Pluralism in the 21st Century also held in Ottawa in 2008 on the 20th anniversary of the highly contested Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988.13 These examples also significantly raise longstanding implications of paradigmatic exhibition positions under state-sponsored multiculturalism for the representation of ethnic and racialized peoples in the arts and cultural sector as elsewhere. Along with ethnically-defined community-based festivals such as Asian Heritage Month in May, officially recognized by the State since 2002, projects of this kind inevitably run into the predicament of how, as award-winning poet and social justice activist Roy Miki recently put it, the temptation to stabilize the institutional presence of Asian Canadian ‘may occlude the always provisional conditions of its various manifestations.’14

In short, exhibitions dealing with identity-based or culturally-specific themes can ill-afford today to be uninformed by critiques of multicultural governmentality, ethnocultural diversity management, autoethnography, and the Eurocentric hegemonic hold of ethno-nationalist discourses on art and art history. How to disassociate from an ‘us/them’ dichotomy or the reliance on canon insertion is part of the larger growing problem of recognizing, on the one hand, how historically-racialized subjects act as historical agents, and on the other, the interplay between the politics of recognition and marketing that occurs, whether or not these views knowingly match with artists’ shifting conceptions of their own artistic identities and practices. At this significant moment of institutional recognition and formation, fraught with its complexities and perils of containment and careerism, one of the most important tasks of Asian Canadian art as a critical project remains the continuous questioning and negotiation of frames, institutional, curatorial, ideological or otherwise. 

Taking its cue from Gayatri Spivak’s discussion of education in the humanities as ‘an uncoercive rearrangement of desires,’ on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chinese immigration to Canada in 2008, the project ‘Rearranging Desires: Curating the ‘Other’ Within’ took the opportunity to critique the very idea of culturally-specific work by featuring four Montreal artists of Asian and South-Asian descent in an exhibition at Concordia University.15 Its aim was to engage in the conditions and expectations that not only shape the presentation, dissemination and reception of artists of Asian descent and their work but also shift depending on the geopolitical context from which they emerge, in this case, the particular context of Canada’s French-speaking province where ethnic categorizations wrangle with linguistic ones as markers of identity.

Intent on, as its symposium title read, Rearranging Desires: About Culturally Specific Work, the project involved publishing prominent artist-activist Jamelie Hassan’s curatorial essay for the like-minded 2007 touring exhibition ‘Orientalism & Ephemera’, which dealt with historical Orientalism and the impact of 9/11 on contemporary Arab and Muslim identities. In a related but different fashion, IntraNations participant Ayesha Hameed’s video installation C’mon In (2008) remixed old American westerns as a strident commentary on the struggle of First Nations peoples for territorial rights while at the same time stood in as her response to the heated debates in 2007 over the ‘reasonable accommodation’ of visible minorities in Quebec, paradigmatically Muslim women wearing hijab. Another IntraNations participant and local mentor artist Mary Sui Yee Wong’s Yellow Apparel (2004-2008) deployed dress to confront essentialist notions about China and Chineseness more specifically. Also included were the contrasting work of Karen Tam and Chih-Chien Wang, both notably selected for the Québec Triennial in 2008. Tam’s restaurant installations, karaoke lounges and paper cuts are purposely replete with self-orientalizing tendencies in order to riff on popular cultural stereotypes of authentic Chineseness. In contrast, Wang’s photographs and videoworks as in Avellaneda (2007-2008), a haunting video of four individuals taking turns singing in an old, flooded factory in Argentina, may frustrate viewers by the filmmaker’s withholding signs of his ethnic identity. Rearranging desires, like the category of Asian Canadian art, entail the exposure of both such practices of reflexive essentialist self-critique and de-specification and the space to work through potential intellectual and creative strategies in substantive ways knowing what has come before. 

Being mindful of how the Other is curated within as much as ‘out there’ is crucial to the understanding and reception of contemporary Asian art in Canada. Asian Canadian art matters now more than ever in the ways it compels a constant probing of what constitutes cultural identifications such as ‘Canadianness’ and ‘Asianness’ applied from different sectors; a crossing of borders to look comparatively, responsibly into other worldviews; the building and maintaining viable and diverse networks of collective critical inquiry; and the affirmation of the historical continuity of similar art experiments and prior social injustices which question precisely the politics, and consequences, of exhibiting the very conditions of the presence of Asian Canadian, ‘forever dynamic and self-critical but visible.’

 

Alice Ming Wai Jim is currently Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She was curator at the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Centre A) from 2003 to 2006 and continues to research and curate projects on contemporary Asian and Asian Canadian art.

 

Notes

1. The following obviously makes no claim to cover the vast geographies of what is a diverse and, depending on province to province, at points conflicting set of specific cultural histories and practices. Rather it is informed by many dialogues and experiences with most of the projects and individuals mentioned here that have helped shaped my own perspectives on the question.

2. Guy Beauregard, ‘Asian Canadian Studies: Unfinished Projects,’ Canadian Literature 199 (Winter 2008) pp 7-8.

3. Some of the most important events of this period, including the conferences In Visible Colours (1989), It’s a Cultural Thing/Minquon Panchayat (1993) and Writing Thru Race (1994), and the exhibitions and publications Yellow Peril: Reconsidered (1990) organized by Paul Wong, Racy, Sexy: Race, Culture, Sexuality (1993) and Self Not Whole: Cultural Identity and Chinese Canadian Artists in Vancouver (1993) co-organized by Henry Tsang and others, are discussed in: Monika Kin Gagnon’s Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art (Vancouver: Arsenal Press, 2000) and Xiaoping Li’s edited anthology, Voices Rising: Asian Canadian Cultural Activism (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007).

4. Centre A was founded by Hank Bull and Zheng Shengtian in 2000 after organizing the 1998 symposium, city-wide exhibition and publication project Jiangnan: Contemporary Chinese Art from South of the Yangtze River.

5. Participants in this first important meeting included: Rustom Bharucha, David Chan, Hou Hanru, Manray Hsu, Huang Du, Marilyn Jung (Zen-Mix 2000), Raiji Kuroda, Sarat Maharaj and Marian Pastor Roces; and, in Boxing the Local: Kirsten Forkert, Jenny Ham, Sook C. Kong, Laiwan, Roy Miki, Cindy Mochizuki, Baco Ohama, Haruko Okano, Leo Quan, Sam Shem, Henry Tsang, Paul Wong, Kira Wu, Winston Xin, Jin-me Yoon and Winston Xin.

6. As I suspect it always will. Speakers included Amy Cheng, Vishakha Desai (Asia Society) and Marian Pastor Roces, and artists Neena Arora, Shelly Bahl, Gu Xiong, Rachel James (SAVAC), Germaine Koh, Ken Lum, Pravin Pillay and Mo Sa’lemy, with the exhibition ‘Lessons’ by Ho Tam curated by Sadira Rodrigues.

7. The symposium brought together over 25 participants from across Canada (Rajdeep Singh Gill, Ken Lum, Narendra Packhede, Niranjan Raja, Ming Tiampo, Jayce Salloum), the United States (Melissa Chiu, Doryun Chong, Pauline Yao), the United Kingdom (Sally Lai), Singapore (Lee Weng Choy), and Australia (Rhana Devenport) and was accompanied by an exhibition of three Asian Canadian artists, Judy Cheung (then based in Toronto; now in Vancouver), Ramona Ramlochand (Montreal) and Henry Tsang (Vancouver).

8. Dates include the 100th anniversary of the 1907 Vancouver Anti-Asian Riots, the 60th anniversary of the 1947 Canadian Citizenship Act, the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Canadian Immigration Act and the 10th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. 

9. This was the theme of the annual Canadian Asian Studies Association (CASA) conference held that year in Vancouver which included Roy Miki as the keynote speaker for the Can-Asian stream, Harbhajan Singh Gill, Director of the Komagata Maru Heritage Foundation (2009 was the 95th anniversary of the Komagata Maru Incident) and Chief Bobby Joseph, Special Advisor to the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2012).

10. A similar purchase of contemporary and traditional Aboriginal art was made in 2003. Both exhibitions included Canadian artists ranging from emerging to established artists with international reputations, such as Millie Chen, Gu Xiong, Ed Pien, and Jin-me Yoon in ‘Made in Canada’.

11. According to the exhibition text, autobiographical commentary is one the strategies used by ethnically-diverse artists to communicate and share their holistic sense of self; seduction is by way of the ‘charm and technique’ of the works’ ‘particular beauty.’

12. The segment was aired on CBC’s The National, 2 February 2010. For community response a month later, see: Emily Falvey and Milena Placentile, ‘An Open Letter to Marc Mayer, Director, National Gallery of Canada,’ http://excellenceatthenationalgallery.blogspot.com/. For Mayer ’s response:  ‘It’s absurd to call National Gallery “racist”,’ The Ottawa Citizen, 15 March 2010.

13. This conference at Carleton University culminated in the touring exhibition ‘ImagiNation: New Cultural Topographies’ including works by Lucie Chan, Jamelie Hassan, Frank Shebageget, Henry Tsang and Jin-me Yoon.

14. Roy Miki, ‘Epilogue: A Conversation on Unfinished Projects,’ Canadian Literature 199 (Winter 2008) p. 209.

15. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Righting Wrongs,’ South Atlantic Quarterly 103:2/3 (2004) pp 523, 526, and 532. The ‘Rearranging Desires’ exhibition was held at Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts Gallery with interdisciplinary symposium speakers including: Elaine Chang (ed. Reel Asian:  Canada on Screen, 2007), Donald Goellnicht, Jamelie Hassan as keynote, Robert Ho, Monika Kin Gagnon, Shelly Low, Gordon Pon and Caroline Vanderloo (Complicated Entanglements).

Imprint

Topic
Essays
Date
Thu, 1 Jul 2010

Relevant content

Jiangnan ---  Modern and Contemporary Art from South of the Yangzi River
Jiangnan --- Modern and Contemporary Art from South of the Yangzi River
Exhibition Catalogue

Jiangnan --- Modern and Contemporary Art from South of the Yangzi River

江南-現代與當代中國藝術展覽
1998

Yellow Peril Reconsidered
Yellow Peril Reconsidered
Exhibition Catalogue

Yellow Peril Reconsidered

1991

Self Not Whole: Cultural Identity & Chinese-Canadian Artists in Vancouver
Self Not Whole: Cultural Identity & Chinese-Canadian Artists in Vancouver
Exhibition Catalogue

Self Not Whole: Cultural Identity & Chinese-Canadian Artists in Vancouver

覓: 加拿大華裔現代文化探索展
1991

Lessons
Lessons
2 Images

Lessons

2002

Rearranging Desires: Curating the 'Other' Within
Rearranging Desires: Curating the 'Other' Within
Exhibition Catalogue

Rearranging Desires: Curating the 'Other' Within

2008